Major Lyricists

Why the Great American Songbook Endures

The melody may linger on, but it’s the lyrics and —witty and sophisticated, tender and sad—that sparked a lifelong love affair with these timeless treasures. Of course, it was Frank Sinatra who elevated the importance of the lyrics with his impeccable phrasing, diction, and breath control. He viewed the lyrics as poetry, and he diligently studied the words for days. If you want to know why these songs endure, listen to Sinatra’s rendition of Alec Wilder’s classic “I’ll Be Around.” The song had been recorded by dozens of singers, but when Wilder heard Sinatra’s bittersweet take on the song’s discarded lover, he exclaimed, “God bless Frank Sinatra!” Once Sinatra grasped the storytelling aspects of the song, he was able to convey the meaning and emotion behind the words like no singer before him.

P. F. (Paul Francis) WEBSTER  (1907–1984) was a Hollywood lyricist who won three Academy Awards for Best Original Song and was nominated sixteen times. He had his first hit in 1941 with Duke Ellington’s "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" After 1950, Webster worked mostly for MGM and started racking up the hits.

JOHNNY MERCER (1909–1976) was known as the “Poet Laureate of Popular Song.” He was also a successful singer, composer, and co-founder of Capitol Records. Mercer wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs, for movies and Broadway shows. He received nineteen Oscar nominations and won four Best Original Song Oscars.

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SAMMY CAHN (1913–1993) was nominated for more than 30 Oscars and won four times. His songs were recorded by virtually every major singer. And he wrote some of the best known of all popular songs. He was also the 1983 recipient of The Johnny Mercer Award, the Songwriters Hall Of Fame’s highest honor.


Although song lyrics are often referred to as a form of poetry, it is more difficult to write a lyric than a poem. Unless you are writing in a prescribed form like a haiku or sonnet, a poet has complete artistic freedom whereas a lyricist must match words to music. (In most songwriting creation, the music is written first, although some teams, like Rodgers and Hart, collaborated.)

Let’s look at the song “I Thought About You,” which master lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote to the music of Jimmy Van Heusen. The composer played the music for Mercer the day before the lyricist was taking the train to Chicago. Mercer, who always strove to tell a song’s story in the simplest language, wrote the lyrics on the train trip as he gazed out the window, Mercer not only came up with vivid imagery, he also expressed the passenger’s emotions -- while following the music’s meter and creating rhymes that didn’t sound forced. It is a brilliant example of lyric writing,

I Thought About You

I took a trip on a train
And I thought about you
I passed a shadowy lane
And I thought about you

Two or three cars parked under the stars
A winding stream
Moon shining down, on some little town
And with each beam,
Same old dream

At ev’ry stop that we made
Oh, I thought about you
And when I pulled down the shade,
Then I really felt blue.

I peeked through the crack
And looked at the track
The one going back to you.
And what did I do?

I thought about you.

Oscar Winner 1945

In 1980, The Johnny Mercer Award was created in his memory. It was originally to honor excellence in lyric writing but was later expanded to include composers as well. Frank Sinatra was the first winner of the award. Not only was he a champion of songwriters, but he wrote the lyrics to some hit songs himself (“I’m a Fool to Want You” and “This Love of Mine”). About songwriters, Frank was once quoted as saying, “If it weren’t for you fellas, I’d be pushing pencils in Hoboken.” He later became chairman of the board of The Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he held this title from 1993-1998.

To see the video in full screen, click the icon in the lower right-hand corner, and to get back, do the same. IMPORTANT:

“I’ll Be Around”
Alec Wilder

"Ain't That A Kick In The Head"
Van Heusen-Cahn

“On the Achison, Topeka and Santa Fe”
Harry Warren-Johnny Mercer
Oscar Winner 1945

"Secret Love"
Oscar Winner 1953
Sammy Fain-P.F. Webster

Sinatra’s Songwriters

The team of composer Jimmy Van Heusen and lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote these Frank Sinatra hits:

“All the Way”
"Call Me Irresponsible”
"Come Dance with Me”
“Come Fly with Me"
“High Hopes"
"Love and Marriage"
"(Love Is) The Tender Trap”